by Elaine Greensmith Jordan
I sit alone at my desk at the end of the school day, organizing and planning, my efficient teacher’s hands piling papers in necessary stacks — the work of a productive professional. I look up to see a gaunt woman standing in the classroom, a flat purse held in front of her stomach like a shield. She has a troubled look, as if she’s lost her way.
I stand and face my visitor, surprised by a person I don’t know. What’s this about? Late sunlight comes in slanted beams through the window-blinds, marking stripes of light and shade on the two of us. She and I don’t match, though we must be the same age. She’s a shadow— an imploded soul, protected by a purse, standing opposite my healthy, high-heeled persona garrisoned behind a solid oak teacher’s desk.
“I’m Jared’s mother,” the woman says. Facing me is a mother whose son had recently died of complications from the flu. “You know we lost him on Friday,” she adds. “I’m here to collect everything you have in . . . his handwriting.” She looks around the room as if searching for her boy.
“Oh . . . yes.” I’d known of Jared’s incomprehensible death. He’d been a student in my Junior English class. The news of his death had shocked me, but I was unacquainted with the sorrow I saw in this woman. Did I have any of Jared’s papers? Was there an essay on the bulletin board? No. I’d eliminated the boy from the room, crossed off his name and re-ordered the seating chart. Looking back, I’m astounded at this callous reaction from one who teaches the wisdom and compassion of poets.
My face flushes. A clanging noise interrupts from outside. Someone has taken down the American flag for the night, and the fasteners slam a harsh reprimand against the pole. “I’m sorry. I don’t think I have any of his papers . . . Mrs. Kenten.” Embarrassed for stumbling over her name, I’m unable to meet my visitor’s eyes. Why hadn’t I anticipated this? A child had died, for God’s sake. My head starts to ache. “I’m so sorry.”
I’d not really known Jared. His narrow white face matched his twin sister’s. They had the same thin brown hair and dark eyes. He was a silent boy. I didn’t remember a word he’d offered during class discussions. What books had he read? Did he laugh with the rest at classroom antics?
Mrs. Kenten hurriedly leaves the classroom. I gather papers and follow. Outside, a fall darkness is descending too early. Conscious of my unsteady walk, I go to the drinking fountain, take two aspirin, and force myself to walk to my car. I want the quiet of my home. Once there, I can tend to the grassy yard where a sycamore tree, and a silent cat, provide steadiness and calm.
Later, dressed in the clothes of a gardener, I screw the nozzle on the hose, turn the pressure to full force and make a wide arc of shimmering water in the twilight. The sycamore accepts my ministry without a noisy word. My gray cat Prince at my feet, I try to blend into the green in some metaphysical way. But the scene doesn’t shimmer with transcendence; it surrounds me, as inert as always. The cat brushes against my leg. I’m bound to this prosaic backyard by uncomfortable reality. Jared, I’m sorry.
Then, in a whiff of sunlight, a spray from the hose drifts over me like a blessing, bringing smells ofwet grass, leaves moldering. A bold mockingbird calls out. She’s eyeing Prince so she can dive down and peck his vulnerable bottom. They race around the yard, but Prince manages to evade attack by taking shelter in the ivy. They do this every day after school — the bully and the victim. I try not to see myself in that brutal bird.
I move to the paved driveway, and the sight of the water shooting pebbles off the asphalt diverts guilty thoughts in a pleasant scattering rush. Pushing those stones makes me feel like I’ve cleared a path, found a way forward.
Inside, a few minutes later, Prince hops to the couch and positions himself to observe the birds fluttering in the sycamore outside. I sit in a comfortable chair facing outward too. Cat and I stare into a grayer world, empty of birdsong. I see no promise in the coming darkness. Feelings of guilt return, thundering in my head.
Then, an image of the sun on watered grass brings a dappled hope. Perhaps everything depends, as Emily Dickinson wrote, on the “slant of light.” Maybe I can go on trying to be a teacher. With enough light, I can believe that violence will end, the planet will survive and people will find ways to exist with enough resources. Hope and despair seem to move in my consciousness like the shadows on the floor of the classroom.
Today, some years later, I no longer wear high heels or live under a sycamore tree, and I don’t remember her face, but I’ll not forget that purse and the sound of the fasteners clanging on the flagpole, a memory of my failure that lives like a pebble fastened in my heart.
Elaine Jordan, author of Mrs. Ogg Played the Harp, is a local editor who’s lived in Prescott for thirty years. Photo by Cheryl Berry